At noon Monday, UMBC Coach Pete Caringi and his almost-perfect soccer team gathered at The Commons, the hub of student life on the Catonsville, Md., campus, for the NCAA tournament selection show.
The Retrievers had earned an automatic berth by winning the America East title, and with a 16-1-2 record, boasted the best winning percentage in the country. Caringi hoped for the fourth or fifth seed in the 48-team competition and figured no worse than eighth.
When the show began, the disappointment struck early and hard: 16th.
“It’s a joke,” Caringi told the Insider. “We’re all in shock. It’s just terrible.”
The Retrievers were the last team to gain a seed. They still received a first-round bye and will host perennial power Connecticut or Quinnipiac on Sunday afternoon, but the low place and arduous pathway to the late stages did not sit well with Caringi. UMBC last week was No. 6 in both the coaches’ poll and the RPI (where strength of schedule is factored) and won both games in its conference tournament. Looking down the road, the Retrievers would have to face No. 1 seed UCLA in Los Angeles in the round of 16.
By late afternoon, he was still trying to obtain an explanation from the tournament committee.
“Based on all criteria, it doesn’t make sense,” said Caringi, who, in 23 seasons, has a 246-144-53 record and four NCAA appearances. “It’s amazing what happens when people get behind closed doors. I made the mistake of trusting the process. No one saw this coming. I can’t look at my players in the eye and explain it.”
UMBC does play in a weak conference and lacked marquee non-league opponents. Hartford, at No. 47, was the only other America East team in the RPI’s top 80 last week. Throughout the season, Caringi braced for a considerable tumble in the RPI — had his team lost a league match. It didn’t, however. Along the way, the Retrievers posted a 4-1-0 record against NCAA-bound teams by defeating George Mason, Navy, Seattle and St. Francis (N.Y.) and losing to Delaware (all at home).
Teams seeded higher than UMBC include No. 15 Cal State Northridge (RPI 22), No. 13 Charlotte (23) and No. 12 UC Irvine (19).
So either the RPI is broken or the committee did not factor it heavily.
“I’m frustrated,” Caringi said, “but as I told the team, we’ve got to forget about it and prepare for the first one.”
He and the Retrievers can draw consolation from this fact: The No. 16 seed in 2012 (Indiana) won the national title.